07 January 2011

Sound and sense

Paul Zumthor, in Toward a Medieval Poetics (1991), talks about “rhythm as a factor”:  “Rules of rhythm played a major role in the poetic mutation that generated the medieval tradition, serving as both mold and catalyst.  The line of verse was the seat of this mutation.  If we examine the oldest poems in French or Occitanian, we find that rhythm, rhyme, syntax, and vocabulary are indissolubly interwoven in a way that reduces as far as possible the chance selection of an unpredictable linguistic feature.”

Things have not changed in poetry.  A good poet chooses a word (whether in the main language or from a different language) not just because of the meaning of the poem (whether denotative or connotative) but because of its sound.  The word must fit the rhythm (or meter) and the rhyme (or sound pattern of some kind) of the poem.  This is one reason that studying a multilingual poem is very different from studying any other kind of written or spoken text by a bilingual or multilingual person.  The poem is an artificial construct, artificial not in the sense of not real but artificial in the sense of deliberately constructed according to certain rules (i.e., artifice).  The words in a poem are there because they not only help convey the meaning of the poem, but because they sound right.  From the oldest poems to yesterday's poems in blogs (assuming the poems are good), the poet's choice of words is dictated not only by the mind (what the words mean), but by the ear (how the words sound) and, in the best poems, by the eyes (how the words look on the page).

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